Whenever we get to a new place, Alan likes to pore over whatever maps he can find, looking for interesting locations that may not be written up in our guidebook. When you scan tourist maps of Alexandria, you can see the city offers a number of interesting places, including the old Jewish cemetery near Alexandria University’s Faculty of Pharmacy.
So after a visit to the Alexandria National Museum (great place, by the way), we walked toward the Jewish cemetery. As we got close to where it seemed to be on the map, we looked around, expecting to spot a large open space dotted with tombstones, just like other cemetery grounds in Egypt. No such sight appeared, so we walked slowly around the edge of a high wall overhung with tree limbs, looking across a small roundabout to the pharmacy school, where we could see lots of young people hanging out and chatting.
We were about to give up when we walked past an opening in the high wall. Inside, we glimpsed huge old trees grown together in a thick canopy. In the deep dappled shade, we could see some large rectangular stone plinths, their bases surrounded by deep piles of dry leaves.
“I think this is it,” I said to Alan. “Shall we go in and see?”
Once we entered, I could see a small building to the left, just inside the entrance. Beside it was an outdoor sitting area roofed in blue plastic tarp material stretched between the small building, the high wall behind, and a wooden post stuck in the ground. Below this blue roof was a very domestic-looking arrangement: boxes arranged to make a table, a couple of plastic chairs, a small portable gas stove and gas bottle, some glasses and tea-making supplies. Bundles of other assorted possessions were piled towards the back of the shelter. In front of these sat an old man and a younger one.
The old man rose to greet us. “Maqabara Israel?” Alan asked. “Aiwa,” the old man answered. Alan asked if we could walk around, and the caretaker gestured his welcome.
There were several dogs hanging around the entrance, and at first I felt nervous. But they proved either actively friendly or too lazy to bother, so we turned to walk into the cemetery. That’s when I realized that the large stone plinths opposite the old man’s dwelling, with blue water barrels and other things piled on them, were actually tombs.
From where we stood, rows of similar stone tombs extended into the distance before us, punctuated by overgrown old trees standing like surviving columns in the ruins of an ancient temple.
It was a bright day, and the trees threw deep pools of shade over sections of the cemeteries. The tombs were thickly crowded together with narrow paths between the rows. I wanted to read more of the tombstones, but the narrow paths were so full of dry brown leaves, it was difficult to move much off the main path. Also, I was wearing sandals, and spiders often lurk in leaf piles, so I had to content myself with reading the tombstones either side of the relatively clear wide path.
The tombstones were both fascinating and poignant. Many were inscribed in two or more languages, some combination of English, French or Hebrew. There were even several in Italian, possibly belonging to one extended family.
The inscriptions were much as they are in any old cemetery: engraved messages of love and sorrow expressed in the language and clichés of their time. (The most recent grave I found was from 1987.) What was different here, though, was the complete neglect of these graves. It’s clear there are no family members left in Alexandria to come and tend the graves of their dead, to sweep off the dead leaves, to leave fresh flowers, to sit enjoying the trees, birds and sunshine and gently mourn or remember the past. As the old caretaker said to us at the end of our visit, “There were so many families here in Alexandria, but they all left. To America, England, Canada, Israel, France and Italy.”
I took photos of a number of the graves. Here are a few more I found especially affecting.
As we left the cemetery, we stopped to speak with the caretaker for a few minutes, and gave him a few pounds for his time. He smiled and nodded in thanks, and invited us to return.
Thankfully the streets were not too busy as we walked along towards our hotel. We stopped for glass of mint tea, and Alan pointed out to me a strange sight: a Nazi swastika stuck onto a motorcycle.
It’s not common to see swastikas in Egypt, and this sighting seemed oddly, uncomfortably timed. I was reminded once again – as I have been several times on this trip – that most human migration isn’t voluntary. Most people prefer to stay where they are, and build their lives; people only abandon their homes and security when they’re really forced to it.